Father William Weedon notes at his blog an interesting quirk in the Lutheran Service Book, namely, that it is out of tune with the normal Lutheran practice of singing a final hymn.
This got me thinking about typical modern American Lutheran practice at the end of the Mass, what is good about it, and what is less than ideal about it. Let me make clear at the outset that I do not intend to suggest or imply that having a hymn at the close of a worship service, whether it be the Mass or a prayer office, or whatever, is improper. However, thinking of how this tends to unfold in most Lutheran churches, within my experience anyway, leads me to certain thoughts of how we could do it in a way which encourages a better, more churchly atmosphere at the close of the Mass. So please hear me out.
The positive: Lutherans love to sing. On that count they are not unlike many Protestants. Unlike the situation in the Evangelical world, however, Lutherans have good hymns; in fact, we have a tradition of really good hymns. Modern Lutheran practice, unfortunately, is also peppered with the singing of many bad hymns. Do I really mean "bad" hymns? Yes, I do, though we also add in a lot of mediocre hymns, so that the blessing of the Lutheran love of singing hymns will be a mixed blessing in those places where the choice of hymns, even within our own books, has become less than Lutheran. In many sectors, whether in parishes or in school chapels, or even other types of ministries, the choice of hymns today has become far less discriminating than it should be.
(Let me add here in passing that another way in which the Lutheran love of hymn singing has been taken too far, or can be a mixed blessing, if you will, though it pertains not directly to my main topic here, is that the hymn-happy impulse in worship planning too often takes over other liturgical considerations, which leads to things like chapel services in high schools or universities that are hymn sandwiches, a reading here, then a hymn, a sermon here, then a hymn. Too many pre-seminary students get their notions of liturgy from such experiences. I suggest, in fact, that in the Sunday Mass as well, at times it seems that Lutheran churches have Divine Service designed around the need to fill a certain quota of hymns. I would question, for example, the liturgical wisdom of singing a hymn between the Gospel and the Sermon. But I digress.)
Singing a well chosen hymn at the end of the Sunday Mass, or really any sung Mass, is indeed a fine practice. Let us consider, for a moment, how this tends to play out. And if your experience is different, know that I do not intend to misrepresent the matter. We can make your experience a part of the conversation.
The Communion has ended, and everyone is back at his seat. Let's stop right here. For we should first say something of the immediate postcommunion practice in our churches. Instead of the normal practice of sitting back down in one's pew, and settling in for more hymn singing, or gathering one's things and maybe even ducking out, since the service is pretty much downhill from there, it would be good to encourage the people to kneel down for a moment of prayer after their communion. First, you have just eaten the Body and drunk the Blood of your Redeemer and Lord. If you take a moment to ponder this great wonder, you will be filled with awe and thanksgiving. Second, the Body and Blood of Our Lord is still within you. We need not speculate about how long Christ's Body and Blood remain within us, but keep in mind that it only took you a few seconds to get back to your pew, and we have no reason at all to think that our Eucharistic Lord is not still within us for a few minutes. Even when you arrive back at your pew, you are favored by God in a high and most special way, with the life-giving presence of the Creator of all things. You are filled with Grace Itself, for the Lord is with you. Third, all around you are people who likewise are blessed with the Lord of Hosts, Who has pitched His tent in you. And what does He give you with His own life-giving presence? He is there to bless you with a gift that lasts more than a few moments. It is the gift for a whole lifetime and beyond, namely, the forgiveness of your sins, which means that, indeed, He gives you life itself; He gives you Life Himself. Fourth, He is still on the altar, and on the paten, etc. This is a most holy and solemn moment. It is a moment filled with holy joy, the kind of heavenly joy which is best manifested by silent and thoughtful prayer.
Personally, when I am visiting another church and am worshipping with the congregation there, I usually kneel after communion (and being relatively able-bodied, I see no reason to modify this practice where I find no kneelers) until it's time to stand for the final hymn. This for two reasons, one is everything I summed up in the previous paragraph. The other is that I find that in many churches today the traditional ablutions at the altar do not take place. This means that the Blood of Christ remains in the chalice, and perhaps particles of the Body of Christ on the paten, until after the Mass. Those trained to believe in the Real Presence and to take It seriously cannot but see this as a quirk in our present practice, which we do well to at least be mindful of during that part of the liturgy. That is, if the pastor is not going to cleanse the chalice and paten at the altar, then we should at least conform our thoughts and behavior to the reality that Our Lord is still present on the altar through the rest of the service.
By the way, if a pastor performs the ablutions, in the traditional manner, at the epistle side of the altar with the aid of the acolyte, rather than holding up the service and wasting time, as some may be tempted to think, what this actually does is it offers the people the perfect moment, if they haven't done so yet, in which to pray. I would suggest the following:
May Thy Body, O Lord, which I have received, and Thy Blood, which I have drunk, cleave to my inmost parts, and grant that no stain of sin may remain in me, whom these pure and holy mysteries have refreshed, Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.
After the Nunc Dimitis and postcommunion collect, in many churches announcements are given. In some places this takes place just before the final blessing, in some places between the blessing and the final hymn. For a variety of reasons many pastors have decided, for their own pastoral reasons, that this is the best and most expedient setting in which to make these announcements on Sunday morning, when everyone is gathered in church. I do not dare to second guess them, or to enter into a dispute about how best to deal with their people. Clearly, however, some do this because of the inertia of congregational custom, and because in a certain sense it is a very logical practice. In another sense, just as clearly, this is a bit of an awkward thing to do, especially considering the nature of some of these announcements, and especially considering the fact that, as mentioned earlier, in many of these churches the reliquiae are still there on the altar. Therefore I only suggest here that whatever must be done, it be done in such a way as preserves the sense that we are still in the church, indeed still in the liturgical assembly, even if your announcements happen to be right after the blessing.
After the blessing the organ kicks in, and the people stand for the hymn, if they were not already standing. Here we do well to bear in mind, right in the forefront of the mind, that we are still worshipping our Lord before His holy altar. Some would object if I were to say that we should remember that the Mass is still going on, since technically one could argue that the Mass has ended with the blessing. There is some basic truth, nonetheless, in the idea that here, while the congregation is still praying and singing together, the Holy Mass is being celebrated by the believing community. The logic that says that one can alter his behavior now, simply because it is after the benediction has taken place, would also lead to the conclusion that since the Mass technically doesn't begin until the Introit, then one may act a certain way, or not show up at all, during the Service of Confession. The very manner in which the organ is played can also encourage some to think of this time as a free-for-all.
The fact that our liturgical worship is generally oriented, ie., eastward, ought to be kept in mind also in the singing of this hymn. To be clear, I see it as a praiseworthy custom for the people to turn to the processional cross as it passes by. (It is interesting, however, that in most Roman Catholic churches I have visited, this is not done; during the procession the people remain facing forward.) This is a fine Lutheran custom, and I will add that it is not only good to face the cross as it passes, but even to bow and make the sign of the cross at that point. What I would argue, however, is that we should let this practice take place in a balanced way, and not let it lead us away from an important principle. I refer to the fact that it is a good practice to keep from turning our back on the altar, even when the Sacrament is not there. To be sure, since this idea will be new to some, I do not imply that turning one's back to the altar should be absolutely avoided, so that we should, for example, walk backward to our pew after communion, and out of the church after Mass. Walking backwards is not part of Western custom or etiquette. However, the altar is always kept in mind as we move about, so that, for example, when the procession passes, while it is appropriate to give reverence to the pastor as he walks by, since his office is that of Christ himself, and likewise to honor the sign of the Lord's Passion, ie., the crucifix, as it goes ahead of the pastor to lead his way, it is best to do so by simply turning ninety degrees to the center aisle, as the procession comes near you, and then when it has passed, turn back to the altar again instead of continuing to turn toward the procession.
Now the hymn has ended. In some churches there is a mad rush out the door or doors. In some churches the exodus out of the nave is much more refined, restrained, and controlled. Many churches fall somewhere in between these two descriptions. One reason the pastor likes the procession at the end of the Mass is that he likes to be there at the door, so that he can greet the people as they leave. It is important, of course, for the pastor to make vital contacts with his people, and with visitors. Even back at the doors, or in the narthex, however, it is good to avoid being unnecessarily loud and boisterous. This for two reasons. One is that we still want to honor the sacred nature of the church, and of evangelical gifts we have received there; the other is that there may still be people praying in the church.
This brings us, finally, to the other notable phenomenon right after the hymn. In many, probably most, churches, especially as the postlude kicks in, this seems to be the cue for the fraternization to begin. It happens right in the church as people are waiting in line to get out. In fact, it even takes place right in the pew. In some churches, this takes the form of loud, cacophonic chatter, laughter, and merriment. All hell has broken lose. In other places, it manifests itself in a much milder manner. Either way, I suggest that this is contrary to the spirit of prayer we should be encouraging and promoting in the church. We should encourage our people to stay right in their pew after the hymn, and pray for a moment. There are several prayers which traditionally are used for this purpose, what we customarily call the Thanksgiving After Mass. If one were to pray of of them, it would take a few minutes. If one were not able, or inclined, to pray all of these traditional prayers, or any of them, he ought not feel guilty necessarily, certainly not merely by the fact that others may want to remain for another minute or two. No one is holier than another, or more Christian, or more thankful, because he prays for ten minutes after Mass, and another prays for one minute, or not at all. To pray, right there in the pew, even on bended knee if feasible, before leaving after Mass, is a notion to which most of our people have yet to be introduced. We need not fear introducing it to them. And those who do not, or cannot pray after Mass, ought to at least consider the needs of those who are praying.
What should the pastor do during this time? I suggest he wait in the narthex for a few minutes, to greet those who will straggle out in that time, and then tend to the prayerful doffing of his vestments in the sacristy, after which it might be good for him to take a couple minutes and pray before the altar, some of the same prayers he encourages his people to pray. The time which has elapsed during all of this will not prove too much of a burden, but in fact will be an investment in the spiritual health of the congregation.
The Lutheran Church, at its best, is a great living tradition of ecclesia cantans, the singing church. My prayer is that we will move toward living this out in a way which more consistently and organically conforms to, and is informed by, the ancient Lutheran reality of ecclesia orans, the praying church.
Footnote: Some of you are now wondering what are these prayers I hinted at. I will post them here at some point, and of course they will also be included in the Mass booklet, which is in the final preparations for publication.